Tuesday, October 5, 2010

He Gave Me a Song--Part 2, Blowing the Dust off of an old Cassette Tape

Wow. I had no idea the processing that would be stimulated by my willingness to delve into this subject. If you get bored, please don't feel obligated to read these, but I feel inclined to continue sharing.

So, that box of cassette tapes was where I left off. Well, I pulled out my PTHS Choir 1994 Spring Concert tape. It was dusty and buried under a bunch of meaningless accompaniment tapes. I scoured the house for a tape player, after I finally found one that would play, I then had to search for batteries, it was nearly midnight and everyone else was asleep. I had to resort to stealing two double AA's out of a Wii controller. I think it has been a few moves and many years since I have listened to that tape. You see it is hard for me to listen to this tape because every time I do I have a lump that wells up in my throat and I have to choke back the tears that start to form as my heart gets a familiar surge as if steel is piercing it and it is ripped open once again.  And there I sit vulnerable, as the Spirit interprets my groans and offers up my heart to the Healer of all things.  As I sat there and listened to the songs, the memories surged through my head, the tears came and my heart ached but did not regret.
So the story goes as follows....

...It was my freshman year in high school. Yes, the same year as the "Daydream Believer" incident mentioned in my previous post. I signed up for choir, of course because I was told that it was fun and I was guaranteed to get an easy A for my credits. I walked into the classroom with the other freshman girls in our "choralaires" group. We were all gushing and bubbling over with excitement over our outfits and awe of the day because it was our first day in high school. We were hushed when standing before us was not the person we had expected. The former director had resigned or retired and the new guy was definitely not the typical, "bubble gum" looking choir director. He was tall and lanky with long arms and dark circles around his eyes. With his eyebrow raised all he had to do was stand there and stare at us with a cold, stern look to make us cower just a little in our seats. And with a rather smooth but searingly direct tone, he asked us who had signed up for choir because we had heard it was an easy credit. None of us raised our hands. He then said something along the lines of, "Good, because I was going to show you the door and tell you to leave."
Talk about a buzz kill! Little did we know he was faking it a little, to establish his boundaries. Well, not faking about the easy credit part, but he want to make a very strong no nonsense first impression. And that he did. I am pretty sure the first impression was something like, 'yes, he seems weird, but definitely not stupid.'
I think we listened to him out of fear at first, then it slowly grew into respect for his musicianship.
 By the end of our freshman year quite a few of those girls had grown over their fear of him and enjoyed choir and appreciated his sarcastic sense of humor, but many did decide to pursue other subjects the next year. His sweet wife, who was the choir assistant and accompanist helped add so much warmth to the room that year. That first year, our school's choral program went from being one of the worst in the state, to getting sweepstakes at District and I believe scoring pretty high at Regionals. I cannot remember with absolute certainty, but I think we made it to the State level that year. I was mostly just part of the girls' choir, but at times the girls' choir members performed with the varsity mixed choir. Our director gave us theory tests, sight reading tests and ear training tests constantly. This is normal in the state of Texas, but at the time was not the norm in  Kentucky. We had no clue, and many of the kids at our school were not wealthy, so most students had not had private lessons in voice. That first year, Mr. X gave us something to get excited about, and he gave us something that made us feel like we were gaining some respect among musicians and other school choirs in the area. For a group of kids who had nothing to do but hang out at an empty parking lot across from a gas station called, "the corner" on weekends, this gave those kids, including myself a reason to be busy doing something else constructive.

As the next couple of years came and went, this whole choir thing was getting more and more attention. The choir members were practicing for hours a day, if you count the hour of class and most days there was some type of rehearsal after school for an hour or two. But each hour of practice was a very focused hour in full, no small talk or goofing around. We continued to do well at competitions even though our director did not really care about those things. I understand now that he probably felt more restrained by having to attend them because it was what we were supposed to do for our school's recognition and status. He would have been much more content just practicing for concerts for the full purpose of building our skills and understanding of music. The ironic thing here is the political part about how God is not allowed in schools. Where music is the focused subject, this is hard because the earliest documented vocal music written was written for use in churches and masses. So much of written music's foundation is based around praise and worship to God. Truly there is no way around it not being a part of your performances unless you really try to exclude anything sacred, and as well you would be excluding anything truly substantial in the roots and history of written vocal music. So it is a total contradiction to say that schools with a vocal music program leave God out of schools. Because generally speaking, the majority of the most profound vocal literature written in music's history were written as passionate praises to that particular composer's Maker. University's would never leave this stuff out because of the significance of the levels of difficulty in some of the pieces and the advancement of the skills and techniques of the individual singers and choirs.

Pause for a quick side note here. In the past decade I came to realize while I was a choral director in the public school system in the Houston area that some people do not know what the difference is in "sacred music" and "secular music", even though to some of us it seems like a no brainer.  Sacred music is music that refers to or speaks of God or a religion. Secular music does not in any way refer to God or in most cases religion.
I realized this when I was discussing with the principal of my school one year what he would like me to do for the "Winter Holiday Concert." He said to me, "The board of director's is really frowning upon doing sacred songs. So nothing like that."
I responded,"Sure, that is fine, but what type songs did you have in mind?"
He said, "I was thinking more 'traditional' songs."
I said something like,  "Ok,  maybe some multi-cultural songs celebrating harvest and snow?"
He said,"No, more "traditional" than that. The board likes traditional holiday type songs."
I responded, "Oh, you mean like Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman?"
He responded, "Yes, and Silent Night and We Three Kings type stuff."  I played completely stupid and said, "Oh, sure I can totally do that. I think we'll have much to pick from that."

Anyway, getting back on track here, we also did sing quite a few secular pieces that were pop music, and art songs. But my point is, in this particular situation, as I am sure in many serious public school choirs, as your ability to sing harder music grows so often does the number of sacred songs you include. Take a large group of mild to moderately depressed teenagers with on average moderate self-esteem issues, and put them in a room where for hours a day they are practicing over and over music that much of it was written to praise the Lord, well God starts to shine through a little, even if it is totally unintentional on the director's part or the students. All of a sudden the teenage funk lifts from their eyes a little and they see some hope.  Even if the songs are in a different language. You have to know what the words you are singing mean in order to sing the piece musically. So, there you have it. It was a catch twenty-two. And if I remember correctly, randomly,  the kids in our choir started spending more time being constructive and kind and had less time to do stupid self-destructive things. Don't get me wrong, there was some of that, but over all by the fourth year, in our little choir room not only were class statuses and races status lines blurring over but students were treating each other with respect and dignity and strangely enough building each other up and encouraging each other. Imagine that. Not to mention the fact that when ever we would have a concert in the evenings it would be packed with people. Not only parents would be there but other teenagers and children. Teenagers that were not involved in the choirs but were friends of people in our choir and also teenagers from other schools choral programs. Younger siblings of the choir members were so impacted with wanting to be a part of this that it left a lasting impression on them. I say this because my brother was a freshman in 1994 when I was a senior, and he was really enthusiastic about being a part of this and he is not a typical choir dork personality. I am so glad we had the experience together. I think my sister watched from afar hoping to be apart of it as well. She did go on to explore many of her musical talents and was in high school choir and an elite girls' group. Maybe I am just blowing this all out of proportion, trying to make some type of good sense out of the whole situation, but I feel like there was something divine happening with this choral program. It seemed to be touched just a little with God's fingertip.  I know this sounds like a cheesy lifetime movie at this point, but I'm not kidding. And I am only seeing it now, as I am looking back at the situation from a distance.  So there we all were, standing in the midst of it.
I had no idea that I was about to learn a huge life lesson. Things were great, it was the spring before I graduated from high school. School was all about choir and also plans for the future. Randomly, we, the choir members, started hearing people say ugly things about our group. People were saying things incinuating that there was talk that we were turning into a cult. We had a little candle lighting thing once a year when we went around the room and said uplifting things to each other and thanked each other for things that  happened over that year and it was a farewell to any of the seniors that were leaving. People thought that was weird for some reason and I guess that is where they got the whole cult thing from. Also they must have thought that Mr. X had too much control over our time and lives. What I don't think they understood was that the choir students really wanted to be investing time in this because it was something that truly made them feel good about themselves. I know that when good things are being done and God is being glorified, Satan comes in like a roaring lion. Talk started getting really ugly. We started hearing horrible things that we or our director were being accused of. Mr. X was a very gifted musician. He was socially a little different from some people, but if you look back in history any truly gifted musicians or mathematicians are generally a little different.  To be honest, I think most of them seem to lead life a bit misunderstood by others. Mr. X was a man of faith and a firm foundation in God. Much of the criticism seemed to be focused on him. Satan was working on creating dissension between people, jealousy, confusion, pride, power, anything really. It was total mayhem. I remember just before the last spring concert, we found out that Mr. X was losing his job due to the fact that he did not have tenure. That was the ultimate reason for letting him go? How convenient, truly. I felt like even though I was leaving and going to college, this thing that I had been such a big part of was being pulled out from under me knocking me flat on the ground and ripping me open. I know, it sounds dramatic but I think all of us who had been a part of the choir with Mr. X were absolutely devastated. That last concert was the hardest thing I think I ever had to sing.  We felt like we needed to do the best singing we had ever done so that we would have that concert to remember. To remember what it was like to see God shine into our lives from an unexpected place. When the school year ended, there was an overall state of  blurred confusion and nauseating ache that hung over the ones of us whose lives had been so much a part of this. All of it was totally out of any of our hands. Rumors were still hanging over us like a cloud and people did not know who or what to believe about how all of this came about. Mr. X was absolutely devastated and so was his sweet wife and his kids, I am just sure of it. His family handled the negative attention in such a way that was truly above reproach and in a Christlike manner. The different relationships that were torn apart were awful. It makes me wonder what Satan was so afraid of and what those friendships would have gone on to do if Satan had not gotten the best of the situation.  People can be so cruel to each other. Just as we saw God's light we saw Satan's ugly darkness. I don't think Mr. X ever got past this event in his life. He just never seemed happy, or truly contented with his work after that. Mr. X passed away in late 2008. His sweet wife is still a blessing to so many and still teaches music.

I know you may be thinking, " Oh whatever! Your father was a preacher and you came from a Christian home. "  Well, if you had known me in high school, you would have known that I was searching, just like everyone else. I believed in God and knew I loved him but I was still trying to figure out how to make my faith my own and I made many mistakes and stupid, impulsive choices.

The big life lesson learned here:
Satan will take the one thing that you believe truly reflects God's beauty in your life and drag it though a field of manure, he will eat it and spit it back all over you so that you are covered in a horrible stench that is so horrible that you  feel like you can't stand the smell of it and you are going to vomit so you have to let it go; OR you can choose to hold onto it and let it air out and sooner or later, you will be able to breathe again.

It seems like God always has a way of resurrecting and reflecting the experience if something was good and pure to begin with. We know that sin is an earthly trait, but strangely enough, singing is a heavenly trait. The angels in heaven do it and I think God gave us this ability for his own enjoyment and joy of being praised. It is comforting to know that we will be singing for eternity. I just hope when I enter those pearly gates that some of the songs playing over God's ipod are "Down in the Valley" performed under the direction of Mr. X by the PTHS Men's Choir and Amazing Grace and Lamb of God performed by the Concert Choir.

Our theme song that we sang at the end of every concert was entitled "An Old English Prayer." The words are as follows:
God be in my head, and in my understanding.
God be in my eyes and in my looking.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking.
God be at my end, and at my departing.

I am pretty sure that the PTHS choir still sings this at the end of some of their concerts. I think it could be one of the traditions that was kept from our time there. And I see, spun off of this experience so many lives that transformed and God's light that continued to shine in the work, careers and lives of those choir members of mine. So many of them chose careers that helped others and built others up and edified God. Little did we know it at the time, but God's light showed through those dark times and blazed a bright future for so many of our lives. How amazing it is that we now have facebook and blogs and can actually see how this has come to fruition in the lives of the people from high school that we have been able to reconnect with. I have heard many people sharing the same type of stories over the past couple of years, about Satan destroying something that had such a divine effect on people associated with it. Stories where Satan played on everyone's weaknesses involved to soothe his appetite for destruction. Satan almost convinces us to believe the lies he is feeding into our heads, but if we just turn our eyes, shifting them ever so slightly, we can see God's promise and the reason that we are not the ugly vessels that Satan is trying to convice us that we are. We are human, and we all fail, thank goodness for the hope we have and the freedom we have in Christ.  And I have to be honest, I love it in these situations when Chirst has the final word. It brings me joy, and for that I am forever grateful.
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven."
~Matthew 5:14-16

I do not think I have ever explained or shared all of these feelings about this before. For a time, I just could not go there. Self preservation, I guess. Or maybe it was easier to pretend that it did not bother me as much as it did.

Stay tuned to "He Gave Me a Song Part 3"

Enough of the sad now on to the joy. So I took the liberty of transferring some songs from that last concert.  Read below.

PTHS Choir 1994 downloaded songs
PTHS Choir 1993 downloaded songs   --If you click onto this site you will find the 6 decent songs that would even play on my tape. I would love the rest of the concert. I took the tape to have it made into a cd but it was so damaged that they guy could not get it to play. So I was able to manually rewind it and get the first few songs. We always talked about a greatest hits cd...and if you have any old tapes or songs you would like to have compiled onto a cd, here is our chance. We can save and download these into our computers and burn a cd or put them onto our ipods. I would LOVE to get some more of the best songs on here.  The folder is in box.net and you can add anything you can download into it. I bought a cheap digital recorder at wal-mart that had a USB port in it and I sat the recorder on top of the speaker in my mini-van to record these. I know, super ghetto, but at least I've got something. I just realized that in that ice breaker question where you have to pick those five things that you would take if you had to leave in a fire and you choose your kids, your dogs, your grandmother's bible, your computer with all the pictures and yes I just decided this tape would make the list.

To the Family of Mr. X--(click)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

He Gave Me a Song--Part I

 A couple of days ago I had gotten out the old hymnal to look at some hymns that were some of my grandmother's favorite. I came across "He Gave Me a Song". I remember singing it when I lived in Denver and went to church there where my grandparents attended. With the song's rather exciting bass lead and "peppy" women's two-part back up vocals, how can a person help but get the song stuck into their head, merely by seeing the title on the page. Man, I hate it when sheet music sings at me without my permission and ends up playing like a broken record in my head for a day or two! However, it planted some processing seeds and I'm feeling entitled to share the thoughts it evoked. It dawned on me that I really have not shared much about "Music Carrie". Why I am not sure. I am working on expressing some of my emotions more in my writing and I guess the journey for me was somewhat of an emotional one and closer to my heart than I thought. It is definately an area in which at times in my life it has left me feeling very exposed and vunerable so maybe that is why the topic seems to be more of a guarded one.

Some of you knew me back in a different day, maybe it was in high school when I was totally into my high school choir in every way. I was the epitome of the choir dork. While I say this in a joking light, I truly wanted to sing all of the time and I am pretty sure I drove some people nuts while doing so. I try not to let as many people know the side of me that was once the over eager singing girl. Not quite as bad as Rachel on Glee, but thank goodness we did not have You Tube!  My girlfriend, Kelley and I would sit in our bedrooms with our portable cassette players and our latest background vocal cassette tapes and we would sing with all of our might just to keep our repertoire updated and practiced for the next singing event. Anything from Les Miserables to Anne Murray would be on the list and we would trade off and constructively critique each other's performances.  I was also a member of what I thought at the time was the most skilled choir around, because unlike the other choirs, not only did we have musical knowledge, but we had passionate hearts behind the music we made. Yes, as cliche' as these sentiments sound I did realize in high school, just like every other music dork out there that I wanted to major in music, not just so that I could sing but to influence and teach other's how to share God's love through the power of music. Wait, did I just say that? I think that somewhere in the adolescent fog of egocentricity  I may have heard God's voice whispering thinking that it was my own. Huh.
I will say that it was when I was in ninth grade that I first performed at our church at a "Young at Heart" banquet. Chuckle while you will, but my friend Kelley had shared with all of the willing singers in our youth group her background vocal tapes so that we could do a good deed by singing for the elderly people at our church. Hopefully the elderly guests hearing senses were not great because Kelley was the only one that sounded decent. My parents were kind of surprised that I got up there and sang the song, "Daydream Believer" redone by Anne Murray. I think that they were pretty speechless actually. Then my father spoke and said, "If you really enjoy this and think you might like to do it again, well, maybe you should consider taking some singing lessons before the next time."
My dad has never been one to beat around the bush about things. To his surprise I was so excited and could not wait to get started with the lessons.  The point that I am trying to make here is that for some people their talents in certain areas come very easily and naturally. I had to work very hard to find my voice. My almost faulted over analyzing skills came into play very effectively over the next few years because I had to learn how to hear pitch the way it was supposed to be heard, and to breathe correctly which took many, many years to finally "get". It also took lots of time for me to understand the function of vocal chords, the mouth and positioning them in such ways in order to produce appropriate and ear pleasing sounds. Then as not to psych myself out while focusing on all of those things, trying not to forget to put my heart back into what I was singing. I had a passion for the music, but I lacked the confidence in the performing of it, and I was working on the developing skills. One of the most important things that I learned during this time was that it only takes one or two people encouraging you and believing in you for you to start believing that you can do something, especially if that person is someone who you admire. My friend Kelley, well, in my eyes she truly was the "Rachel from Glee" with a beautiful voice. I heard her perform "The Greatest Love of All" when we were in the 6th grade and I thought that she was the best thing since sliced bread. The fact that she did not treat me like I was beneath her was a great lesson. What a great lesson that was in helping me to understand that exalting others instead of yourself was so important, and a great example to me for many years to come. Sometimes it takes people a long time to understand that competition within a friendship will destroy it and that a quiet confidence in yourself can be used to let others see the beauty in themselves. I'm sure she has no idea I have thought all of that, but hey, thanks Kelley.
 So as I was typing this post I remembered that I had a box of old cassette tapes around somewhere and I went to find it. Laying in the box as chance would have it, was a recording from the "Young at Heart Banquet Spaghetti Supper" the summer after my freshman year of high school. This was the second one, so lessons had been had and I was more excited by the minute about singing. I had to share for pure nostalgia purposes. Great memories, what a fun time! If you so choose you can click on these two songs for your humorous listening pleasure.
One Moment in Time ...performed by Kelley and I   Somewhere Over the Rainbow...performed by me

Stay tuned for "He Gave Me a Song" Part II.
Let's just say this story is a journey of faith and how I came to understand some of what defines me as me.